It was enough to drive any chef off his trolley, recalls Neil Sowerby
On Monday (5 February) the Michelin grandees will gather at Manchester’s Midland Hotel to announce their 2024 UK Awards. The choice of venue has sparked speculation the hotel’s flagship restaurant, Adam Reid at The French, might regain the star that dining room lost over four decades ago.
Fast forward to 2019 for Mana to finally secure the city’s second ever and only current ‘étoile’. Birmingham now has six. So why all this Manc fine dining tumbleweed? The fruitless stardust quest has certainly not been for want of trying. Let’s explore those 40 years of hospitality hurt. Remember Establishment, Le Mont, Quill and the Man Behind the Curtain’s Rabbit in the Moon?
The tasting menus couldn’t rescue a venue trying to work both as a bar and a restaurant – a perennial Manchester booby trap
I’ll start in the unlikely setting of an exec housing estate on Elbut Lane, north east of Bury. Fancy a decent meal in these parts, your best bet now is Andrew Nutter’s Bird at Birtle gastropub a two minute drive away. Let me pay homage, though, to the ghosts here of a gastronomic past, when Manchester couldn’t compete with this rural backwater. On the site, from the 1970s to the millennium, flourished La Normandie, a Gallic enclave to rival, if not surpass, the big city Midland French.
Simon Hopkinson dedicated his best-selling Roast Chicken and Other Stories to the memory of chef patron Yves Champeau, in whose kitchen he began his cooking career. Champeau’s successor, Burgundian Pascal Pommier, sealed the Michelin deal by holding a star in 1995 and 1996 and was happy to buy in his boudin noir from Bury Market.
From the launch of the French tyre giant’s UK awards in 1974 there was never any debate about which national cuisine was the most formidable. In the first tranche of Michelin stars was the Roux family’s Le Gavroche in London. It rapidly rose to three stars and still held two until its poignant final service on Saturday, January 13 2024.
Fellow recipient The Midland French kept its own single star for just four years from 1974-1977 under one Gilbert Lefèvre (think Chef Gusteau in Ratatouille). His menu was de rigueur in French. It was a world of wine lists majoring in Bordeaux and Burgundy, escargots, caviar and foie gras, sautés, flambés and soufflés, and as I vividly recall, flunkeys shoving bread trolleys and cheese trolleys ad infinitum.
A 21st century contender, Establishment, even boasted a terrine trolley (more on it later). In complete contrast, the Michelin benchmark for the Noughties was Juniper, outside the city in Altrincham where the late Paul Kitching held a star for 11 years. A chef built more along Linguine lines than Gusteau, his subversive wit and invention - based upon immaculate technique - was a hard act to follow for North West Michelin wannabes. He resisted the temptation of the city centre, finally upping sticks to Edinburgh in 2008 where he calmed his epic multi-course tasting menus at 21212 and kept a star for a further decade. Manchester kept its star-shaped hole.
It wasn’t as if starry names didn’t attach themselves to the city centre over the decades. Some ‘consulted’ on launches, others lent their name to half-arsed franchises, few stayed longer than it took for an assiette of desserts to melt. Still it’s an impressive roll call of minimum merit. Marco Pierre White (launch chef for the Lowry Hotel’s River Room, then other projects of diminishing returns), Nico Ladenis (Nico Central at the Midland, bright yellow Med decor, dull menu, not to be confused with Six By Nico), Roux Express in Kendals was what it said on the packet and more recently multi-stellar Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat is not aimed at Michelin inspectors.
Jason Atherton is spared. The Ramsay protege’s stint at Mash & Air was years before he gained Michelin eminence. Tom Kerridge’s Bull & Bear in the Stock Exchange Hotel never promised to be the new Hand & Flowers and wasn’t. In its gloomy basement Michael Caines at Abode flattered to deceive – it just felt Gidleigh Lite. Fellow two-star legend Raymond Blanc’s own casual side project, Le Petit Blanc, did hang around for a decade off King Street; you wondered, though, if dressing up as Napoleon for Bastille Day was the kind of stunt that would give added value at his Michelin flagship, the Manoir.
The Blanc site was taken over for less than three years by a definite Michelin aspirant, Grafene. They eventually pinned their hopes on a fine young chef, Ben Mounsey, from the Wirral’s Michelin-starred Fraiche, but his tasting menus couldn’t rescue a venue trying to work both as a bar and a restaurant – a perennial Manchester booby trap. That was the case too at Quill, a much more extravagant arrival in 2015 that “ruffled a few feathers” (sic) with its quill-inspired cocktails –‘Mrs Peacock’ was a turquoise concoction with a peacock feather clipped to the glass. Lots of dry ice featured on both drinks and food menus. I remember, in a kind of dyspepsia flashback, scallops served with salt cod and chocolate around a shell and stone mini obelisk belching the stuff.
That was one stage on the tasting menu journey Curtis Stewart took you on. Eight courses for £80 (£145 with matching wines) from a tyro chef who’d worked in several Michelin establishments, surely none as penumbral and packed with stuffed ravens as this place. It closed abruptly after eight months; its successor, brightly painted Middle-Eastern Suri lasted three months less. The King Street site now hosts Tast Catala, part of the Paco Perez empire. He has, at the last count, five Michelin stars, in the Costa Brava, Barcelona and Berlin, but not a sniff of one here.
Let us not ignore North West local heroes for whom the stars never came out once they’d got off the gravy train at Piccadilly. Paul Heathcote’s 2 star in Longridge was a gastronomic game changer for Lancashire, but Simply Heathcotes in Manchester was always a pale shadow. When it shut in 2008 he announced plans for a top end restaurant on the site called The Elliot but that never happened.
Simon Rogan (now holder of 3 stars at L’Enclume in Cartmel) was a higher profile arrival in 2013, transforming the moribund French. Famously Times critic Giles Coren swooned over his signature dish: “I tell you what, I would walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of the chopped raw ribeye of ox in coal oil.”
The Michelin judges weren’t as impressed and Rogan left three years into a five year contract, his head chef Adam Reid getting his ‘name over the door’. Sleep well on Sunday, February 4, our Adam.
Simon Rogan was involved in the nadir of needy Manc Michelin speculation. He was pitted against Aiden Byrne of The French’s contemporary rival, Manchester House, in a spurious BBC shoot-out called Restaurant Wars. It was guaranteed to raise the hackles of tasting menu deniers everywhere. One Guardian reviewer, not over-keen on the cuisine, took sides on the personalities. Rogan had “the charm of a belligerent tramp and the cold, glassy stare of a haunted goose freshly liberated from its foie gras Belsen”, while ‘saintlike’ Byrne “could collect the ingredients for a blood and sputum jus by repeatedly punching his nan in the face and you'd gurn at the screen dribbling: ‘Aww, he's a good lad, inee?’ "
There in a nutshell the lack of sympathy for Manchester’s starless culinary wasteland. Compare and contrast the perennial case for the defence: “We don’t give a fuck about Michelin.” Ah, but the chefs do. Aiden Byrne, at 22, had been the youngest in Britain to win a star, aged 22 in Norwich, and surely it gave him the taste. Others, too, have it, with much less talent.
Often you sense it’s not going to work out from the start. Take my Last Helicopter out of Saigon moment… actually last BA flight out of Charles de Gaulle. Le Mont, occupying the top two floors of Urbis, was not just a restaurant of huge ambition but also host to the UK’s first dedicated Bolly Bar. Hence, with me in tow, chef Robert Kisby and his team headed for Reims and a photo shoot in the Bollinger vineyards. En route back from our expansive exploration of champagne, via a long lunch and horrendous roadworks, we ran into an air traffic controllers’ strike. I and a photographer made the only flight left; Kisby and co didn’t, hiring a car to hurtle back a mere two days before the big opening.
Manchester never really warmed to the frosted glass eyrie, reached by lift. Opened in 2002, Le Mont closed after five years. For a while it was unmemorable Kaleido and then went back upmarket as The Rabbit in the Moon, a definite attempt by Michael O’Hare to add a star to the one he already held at Man Behind The Curtain in Leeds. Backed by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs’ GG Hospitality group, it proclaimed itself as ‘space-aged Asian’, hence the porcelain spaceman on every table. It had fine food and an even better team but a Michelin inspector would surely dismiss it as from another planet. O’Hare’s protégé, head chef Luke Cockeril jumped shop abruptly after eight months. O'Hare himself parted company with GG in 2018, the Moon was eclipsed from the title and it hopped along briefly as The Rabbit.
It’s fascinating to trace the changing occupants of a restaurant site, especially where one briefly seemed a genuine contender for a star. The marbled and domed Lancashire and Yorkshire Bank building on Spring Gardens was first converted into a bar called Rothwells. For 14 years until 2023 it was glitzy Italian, Rosso, soon to become glitzy Italian, Cibo. Along the way it has also been Kazim’s Indian, but between 2004 and 2007 it flew the haute cuisine flag as Establishment, funded by Cheshire Oaks magnate Carl Lewis, like his sprinter namesake, always ahead of the pack.
The restaurant wasn’t a winner though and closed within weeks of Le Mont.
A shame. The food of launch chef Ian Morgan was exquisite, ditto the less elaborate menu of his successor, Davey Aspin, so it was hotly tipped for a star.
What was unforgivable was the way a magenta dayglo bar/private dining pod in the middle marred the magnificence of the setting. Pure conjecture of course, but did this intruder give Michelin a migraine?
The terrine trolley was more discreet.
A report of the winners, and a lovely bit of colour from Editor-at-Large Jonathan Schofield, will be with you on Tuesday.
If you liked this you may also like...
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!
Join our WhatsApp group
You can also get regular updates on news, exclusives and offers by joining the Manchester Confidential WhatsApp group.